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Why do we grieve when a cultural icon dies?

By Christie Pool

Staff writer

Kobe Bryant, a former NBA superstar for the Los Angeles Lakers, and his 13-year-old daughter died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash along with seven other people. When news broke of the tragedy, hundreds of thousands of people grieved across America and the world.

Of the mourners, most had never met Bryant but had followed his 20-year basketball career. Many others didn’t follow him or even watch basketball yet still found themselves glued to the television as the story unfolded. Social media became a hotbed of grief. Twitter, Instagram, websites and news shows began playing clip after clip of Kobe during his last NBA game, scoring an unbelievable 60 points, or Kobe accepting his Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 called Dear Basketball.

Most of the people posting to social media or showing up at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with flowers or candles had never met him. 

Of course, we didn’t know Prince when he died in 2016 or Princess Diana when she died in 1997, yet the reactions to their deaths were similar – spontaneous, emotional, gut-wrenching. But why do we mourn people we’ve never met? What fuels us to grieve when a cultural figure dies? Perhaps it’s simply because we feel connected to them for their artistry – their greatness in the studio or on a playing field or in a movie. And it’s a collective feeling as a society, it’s knowing that others share our same feelings.

It’s not that Kobe died, it’s that an icon died. He, like other celebrities who died young, help us relate to our understanding of ourselves as a culture. 

People cried when JFK, Jr. died, when John Lennon died, when Whitney Houston died. We may not have known them personally, but they were like friends – people we connected with when we watched them on the court or listened to their music or saw their movie. 

The feelings of sadness everyone has expressed as a community heightens our sense of empathy and understanding for those who are suffering – for instance, Kobe’s wife, Vanessa who lost not only a husband but her second child as well. 

Perhaps most importantly, collective mourning connects us to a larger community.

Beyond his life, the fact that Kobe’s young daughter died in the crash certainly caused every parent instant heartache for what her mother was going through. Later news that a family of three died and a mother of three small children also died in the crash was similarly gut-wrenching.

Some people, rightly so, pointed out on Monday when two people died in a U.S. Air Force aircraft in Kabul, Afghanistan or when three U.S. veterans were killed in a tanker crash while battling Australian bushfires, there was no mass outpouring of grief. While utterly tragic and devastating to their families and loved ones, these losses don’t shake  our culture the way a celebrity’s death does. Rightly or mostly wrongly from seeing their images all of our lives, we feel connected to celebrity. It seems personal, even though we have much more in common with the everyday heroes. Let’s face it, modern culture very much revolves around hero worship.

Furthermore, celebrity deaths, especially untimely ones, teach us that everyone will die someday, and neither fame nor wealth nor talent shields us from that. And perhaps that recognition will help us to pursue healthy, mindful lives and appreciate what we have before it’s gone. 

From this tragedy, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres perhaps said things best as she thanked her audience for being in attendance Monday: “Thank you for being here. I appreciate it today more than ever (following the news of the helicopter crash). More than I did yesterday. And tomorrow I will appreciate it more than today. Because life is short. Life is short and it’s fragile. And we don’t know how many birthdays we will have. Just celebrate life. And if you haven’t told someone you love them then do it now.”

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